It’s ridiculous, I know, but there I was in my late forties rueing the fact that I’d never been to Rome. I’d hate you to think that I was a complete philistine, however, for I have been to Venice dozens of times (I even got engaged there, thanks to a Bellini-fuelled rush of blood to the head in Harry’s Bar). I also know Florence, Siena, Milan, Naples, the Amalfi coast and so on. Somehow, though, Rome had slipped through the net.
‘It’s like ignoring Gina Lollobrigida because you’re distracted by Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale,’ mused my Italian-film-buff mate Mark. ‘No crime in that. But if this gap in your education bothers you, then go.’ It did, so I went.
A quick call to my new favourite travel agent, Kirker Holidays, and Marina and I were booked into the reassuringly swish and swanky Hotel de Russie for the weekend. This, we were told, was the favoured Roman hangout of George Clooney and Brad Pitt (the news of which put quite a spring in Mrs Ray’s step) not to mention Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts (which put quite a spring in mine).
The Russie certainly ain’t cheap, but it’s a fab, elegant spot, located yards from the Piazza del Popolo. The grub is superb and the wine list extremely drinkable. A supplementary list — I Vini Delle Stelle — features wines produced by stars such as Mick Hucknall, Francis Ford Coppola, Gérard Depardieu, Bob Dylan and Carole Bouquet. We made fair inroads into this during our stay, agreeing that the excellent Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from racing driver Jarno Trulli was our pick of the pops.
We didn’t spend all our time eating and drinking, although Marina did her best to divert us into every gelateria, osteria or enoteca that we passed. ‘Might as well,’ she’d say. ‘When were we last in Rome?’
My chum, Elizabeth, who once lived here, sent us three suggested itineraries. So detailed and concise were they, we didn’t even bother to buy a guidebook.
Her first walk took us from the Spanish Steps down Via Condotti (shops and boutiques galore), Via Borghese and Via Marzo to the Pantheon, the remarkable circular temple built by Hadrian in ad 119-128, complete with oculus (gaping hole in the roof to you and me).
Then to Piazza Novona, a vast bustling square once used for chariot racing, now filled with the same crap painters and paintings that you find in Montmartre and along the Green Park railings on Sundays. Its pizzerias were crammed with red-faced tourists, so we stuck to Elizabeth’s itinerary and ducked into the alleys west of the square and made for the church of Santa Maria della Pace. Here, in a secluded first-floor cloister, we found the enchanting restaurant she recommended. We were the only foreigners there and we smugly sipped prosecco (me) and Aperol (Marina) like the true Romans we had become.
Over the next 48 hours we walked our socks off following the sainted Elizabeth’s impeccable directions. Down to the Forum, the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus; over the river to Trastevere; back past the Trevi Fountain, Trajan’s Column and Temple of Hercules; up to the Borghese Gardens and so on. Although excellent pit stops and restaurants were marked for us along the way, I like to think that we weren’t completely idle, managing to rootle out one of our own: Hosteria La Lampara, a stunningly fine, brand-new fish restaurant near the Pantheon.
At the end of the weekend, as we nursed our throbbing feet with a revitalising bottle of prosecco in Buccone, a wonderfully well-stocked enoteca in Via di Ripetta, Marina and I voted on our worst and best of Rome.
Worst was our trip to the fabled Antico Caffé Greco near the Spanish Steps. Here we were served coffee and grappa by a miserable, sullen old git in a grubby tailcoat, and were charged £35 for the privilege. It made me want to nick their fancy teaspoons.
The best was harder. We agreed that the majestic Forum, bathed in early spring sunshine, was a sight worth waiting all these years to see, but it was edged into second place by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s extraordinary sculptures Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Proserpine in the Galleria Borghese. These extraordinarily fluid works — how could marble be made to look so soft and pliable? — Bernini’s first solo commissions, date from 1621 when he was barely 23. They alone were worth the trip.
Jonathan Ray Is Wine Editor Of The Daily Telegraph